FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas needs to find a reliable fullback this spring to replace Kiero Small, who is now working toward a pro football career.
The Razorbacks plan to find out this spring if Kody Walker is capable of handling the role after spending most of his first three seasons as a tailback.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said Walker got his first extended work at the position during the Razorbacks’ first week of spring practice. It included the first practice in full pads held last Thursday, before Arkansas stepped away for spring break.
“It was his first true look at fullback with pads on and hitting people,” said Bielema, whose team will resume practice Tuesday. “Unfortunately, in our style of play with what we have in, he was involved in one-on-one contact with a young man named Trey Flowers and I don’t know if I’d want that to be my first day on the job. I think he handled it.”
Walker hasn’t played much during his three-year career with the Razorbacks.
Injuries limited him to five games his first two seasons, but Walker did work as a goal line back during that time and has five career touchdowns. He was behind Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Nate Holmes on the depth chart at tailback to begin last season. The Razorbacks later moved Korliss Marshall to the position.
Walker played in eight games with 6 carries for 32 yards. Most of the work came in the first half of Arkansas’ 24-17 loss to Mississippi State. Walker and Marshall filled in for Collins and Williams, who were suspended for the first half of the game.
Bielema said the 6-foot-2, 246-pound Walker is a “work in progress” this spring as he adjusts to fullback. But the Razorbacks believe he has the size to make holes for ball carriers and the athleticism to catch passes and carry the football at fullback.
Arkansas also is taking a look at returning backup Patrick Arinze and walk-on Chris Jones as they work to replace Small, who had 279 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns last season.
“Chris Jones has shown us ability to do it and Patrick Arinze has had some flashes,” Bielema said. “We might move one of our non-scholarship tight ends to that position as well. And there are a couple of guys we project in the fall who might help us.”
Defensive end Trey Flowers and linebacker Braylon Mitchell are two of the most experienced Razorbacks on defense this spring. So Mitchell said both have taken on a leadership role as they prepare for their senior seasons.
But Mitchell wouldn’t consider either as “vocal” leaders. He said safety Rohan Gaines and linebacker Martrell Spaight have taken over those roles this spring.
“Those two are the most vocal guys we’ve got on the defense,” Mitchell said. “Every play you’re going to hear them talking and yelling and getting guys lined up and ready to go. Guys like myself and Trey, we’re just going to try to lead by example.”
Arkansas has wide receiver Demetrius Wilson back after the senior sat out the 2013 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Wilson — who was expected to play a big role in Arkansas’ passing attack before suffering the injury in preseason camp — worked with the offense during the first three practices. Bielema said Arkansas will continue to be cautious with Wilson this spring, though. He won’t participate in scrimmages.
“He has remained relatively swelling free,” Bielema said. “He’s been on that knee, this is his first full-go. We won’t scrimmage Demetrius. … Even if you just watch him in routes on air, there’s just a little bit of a hitch in his get-along. But he’s catching the ball. (Last Thursday) he made some fantastic catches.”
Arkansas has three spring practices under its belt. But one of the program’s newcomers — cornerback Chris Murphy — has only practiced twice.
Bielema said Murphy, who enrolled at Arkansas early and is practicing with the team this spring, missed the first workout on March 15 because he was attending his high school prom in Marietta, Ga.
“One of the things I promised kids during the recruiting process, if they sign with us early, there’s two things that if they want to get back and attend,” Bielema said. “I let them attend their high school prom and their graduation. Because I think those are kind of memories that last a lifetime and he took me up on it.”
Murphy was on the field the next two practices. Bielema said he practiced well last Thursday before the Razorbacks stepped away for spring break.
Arkansas will settle into a spring routine when it resumes practice Tuesday.
The Razorbacks — who held three workouts three before spring break — will be on the field Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday over the next four weeks. The last practice will be the Red-White scrimmage in Razorback Stadium on April 26.
“The first two days were teaching moments,” Flowers said of the first three practices. “(Last Thursday) was pad day so we got physical. It was very important to get those three days out of the way and refresh over spring break. Make sure we take care of our bodies and come back strong, full speed ahead.”